February 22, 2024

Jeremy Bentham and social distancing

Would the founder of utilitarianism support Covid-19 directives?

Since utilitarianism is a frequent topic on BioEdge, readers will no doubt be interested in what its founder, Jeremy Bentham, has to say about the Covid-19 pandemic. Not too much, actually, since he passed away in 1832.

But at the moment what remains of him is promoting social distancing at University College London where his body has been preserved as an auto-icon at the entrance to the UCL student centre. The head is a wax effigy (the real head, now mummified, is stored elsewhere).

Pranksters recently fitted it with a mask and posted a photo on Twitter. This provoked a range of responses, most of them complaining that it was disrespectful to ridicule human remains: 

  • This is stupid and disrespectful.
  • I believe being dead is grounds for a mask exemption. He is most unlikely to be emitting any aerosols and his all-encapsulating display case serves in lieu of a visor. Also, notwithstanding the bizarre nature of his exhibition as an auto-icon, I think this is a tad disrespectful.
  • Social distancing like a pro – the greatest good for the greatest number.

However, it was Bentham’s wish that his body be put on display. The auto-icon was created in accordance with his last will and testament, which specifies that it should be exhibited in “an appropriate box or case”. It seems that he wanted to participate in UCL activities, which nowadays include mask-wearing:

“If it should so happen that my personal friends and other disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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